A couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail from a reader named Luke Martin, who suggested Tom Verducci as a Quaz. Tom and I had worked together covering the Majors for Sports Illustrated, and while I thought the idea was a good one, I also figured it, oh, 97-percent unlikely.
Tom is a guy I’ve always liked and always respected. He’s often noted as one of the best baseball writers of his generation, and that’s struck me as a nonsense compliment. Tom isn’t merely one of the best baseball writers of his generation—he’s one of the best writers. Period.
And yet … Tom is guarded. We’ve always gotten along very well, but working alongside Tom came with the knowledge that personal conversation would be kept to a minimum. When I arrived at a ballpark, I enjoyed chatting with fans, chatting with other writers, grabbing a bite to eat, checking my e-mail. When Tom arrived, it was business. No nonsense, no wasted moments. Business.
To my great delight, Tom was open to being Quazed—and then put forth a fantastically detailed and insightful session. Here, he talks about what separates top-shelf reporters from mediocre ones; why he never follows the pack and how the biggest PED story of the last 20 years came to be. Tom never feared Albert Belle, always liked Mark McGwire and rated himself a “poor man’s Henry Cotto” as a college player.
Ah, Henry Cotto. Where have you gone?
Tom Verducci—welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, so Tom, we worked together at Sports Illustrated for five or six years. I’ve always been a huge admirer of your work and your approach. And yet, when people have asked, “What’s Tom like?” I don’t really know how to answer. What I mean is, you always seemed to be sort of guarded and protective. Not in any sort of mean or jerky way. Not even remotely. More like a guy who had a job to do, intended to do it extremely well and didn’t need the endless distractions of small talk and inane banter. Is this a misread? Am I off on this?
TOM VERDUCCI: Pretty good scouting report. I really, really love what I do, but for me to do the best I can requires a lot of focus. That’s just me. I love noticing the small details within a game, for instance, and sometimes you look around in the press box and you can count the heads that are down—playing solitaire, checking their fantasy football team or buried in Twitter. Whatever works for you.
My dad was a legendary football coach and teacher and I don’t ever recall him talking about himself. I do remember him working at getting better all the time. The house was filled with game film and projectors, and chances were any loose sheet of paper sitting around had plays and defenses diagrammed on it. I don’t need or like a lot of noise. The reservoirs within us that we need to tend to are humility and empathy. When they get depleted is usually when we fail as fellow citizens.
J.P.: I’ve never told you this, but I learned more watching you work a clubhouse than any other journalist I’ve been around. You seemed to have a v-e-r-y patient approach to reporting; let everyone else gather around the hero for sound bites and snippets, and I’ll catch him at the end, solo. It also seems like you get the value in backup catchers, long relievers, etc. So, Tom, what is your postgame reporting philosophy? How do you go about getting the goods? And, in this day of 100,000 media outlets, is it still possible to “get” things others don’t?
T.V.: Patience is a requirement. Anybody with a credential and a pen or a microphone can get “a” quote. You’ve seen it, Jeff: the scrum around the star of the game and the stock questions that typically feature phrases such as “how surprised were you . . . ,” “the mindset,” and “what pitch.” The worst are the non-questions. They almost always start like this: “Talk about . . . .” It’s sheer laziness. The point is that you ask a stock question you get a stock quote.
I don’t want mere quotes. I want information. And I want what’s true. You have to be patient if you’d rather drill closer to bedrock than the surface layer. I’ll tell you a story that illustrates how much of what comes out of clubhouses is pablum. Many years ago I covered a game in which the manager made a pitching change with two outs in the ninth inning and a big lead—something like five runs—to get the matchup advantage over the hitter. After the game, with the media crowded in his office, the manager was asked about the move. He provided some explanation about how no lead is safe and he takes nothing for granted. One of the requirements of this job is to have a super-sensitive baloney detector. Mine was blowing up upon his answer. Okay, here’s where patience comes in. I waited quite some time to circle back and get a minute alone with the manager. I told him there must be something else to changing pitchers with two outs in the ninth with a big lead. To be honest, I thought he might have been covering for an injury for the pitcher he removed. He told me I was right, that there was something else. It wasn’t an injury. He said he had such disregard for the hitter who came to the plate with two outs in the ninth that he long ago vowed he never would give that hitter a comfortable at-bat, regardless of score.
What he told me was off the record. I couldn’t use it. But it informed me that the explanation he put out there for public consumption—the explanation that would appear in most game stories—was baloney. His strategy is deployed all the time, especially with how coverage of baseball has grown bigger and faster. They figure it’s better to be safe than honest.
There is another component to this story that you probably figured out: I knew the manager well enough that he felt he could trust me with something he didn’t want printed. Patience is great, but if you don’t develop trust with your sources patience is nothing but a waste of time. Trust takes time, work and honesty. The media-athlete relationship too often is a one-way street. The media takes, takes, takes. “I need a quote.” “I need five minutes.” No wonder the athlete becomes wary or, worse, regards the media as the “Gotcha” police—just waiting to twist a quote or a moment from the heat of battle into a headline to get them noticed. Establishing trust means having conversations with the notebook closed so that not every encounter is an “I need” moment. I try to connect with players as people. You mentioned the value of backup catchers and long relievers. I don’t let salary or skill define a person’s value.
So yes, establishing that kind of trust is always important. You could argue it’s even more important these days with so much noise (and baloney) out there. As with nutrition, the closer to the original source you get your information the better off you are.
J.P.: You’ve been covering the game for more than three decades, and seem to genuinely have a love for baseball I, regrettably, lack. Where does that come from? How did you develop your appreciation of baseball? Was it your dad, Tony, who coached football and baseball at Seton Hall Prep? Your brother Frank? And were you, initially, a guy who loved baseball and thought he could write, or a guy who loved writing and thought he could do it on baseball?
T.V.: I’ve always loved baseball. My two older brothers, Frank and Anthony, are successful football coaches (NFL, college, high school), my dad was one of the greatest high school football coaches in New Jersey history (as well as a very successful baseball coach), and I played football, basketball and baseball in high school, but baseball always was my first love. I think I developed an early appreciation for the fairness of the game—that you took turns batting, for instance—and the physical perfection of the size and weight of a baseball for throwing. And when I watched my father’s baseball team play, I watched through his eyes: the eyes of a coach, not a fan. I appreciated the nuances of execution and team play. I’ll never forget when his team lost in the state final when the umpires missed a balk call on a first-and-third play when the opposing pitcher didn’t step off the rubber properly. I was probably about 9 or 10 at the time, and gaining an understanding on the finer points of baseball.
But I loved writing just as much as baseball. I liked the craftsmanship of words and ideas. I loved essay tests. I wrote a middle school newsletter (on a typewriter) just for the fun of it. I knew at a very early age (middle school or even before) that I wanted to combine baseball and writing. I’m just so blessed to be able to say that it worked out for me—that I was able to know at an early age what I was passionate about and to be able to pursue those passions.
J.P.: You were 24, in 1985, when Newsday asked you to cover the Yankees in spring training. I have a hard time envisioning a nervous Tom Verducci—but were you nervous? Hesitant? What do you recall from the experience?
T.V.: Let me start with how I wound up there. One day in early February I was sitting in the Newsday office. I was covering high school sports and had been a backup writer on the Mets and Yankees for a couple of years. The sports editor, Dick Sandler, a great guy and the kind of smart, fair editor every writer hopes for, walked up to me and basically said, “Can you get to Fort Lauderdale next week to be our beat writer on the Yankees?” This was when Fort Lauderdale still was the spring break capital of the U.S. I looked out the window. It was cold and miserable. I probably had an Oyster Bay High hoops game to cover the next week. I was 24 and single. So here was the sports editor giving me the chance to spend seven weeks in sunny Fort Lauderdale while covering the Yankees and staying in a condo one block from the ocean with an expense account and driving a rental car that had to be better than my 1973 Plymouth Satellite. I practically ran to Fort Lauderdale on the spot.
So now I get to Fort Lauderdale and my fellow beat writers included heavyweights such as Bill Madden, Moss Klein, Murray Chass and Mike McAlary. This is the toughest beat in all of sports: Steinbrenner’s Yankees. And it’s pre-cell phone and pre-email beat work. It’s the Camp Lejeune of beat writing. I’m just some kid who last week was covering Nassau County high school hoops. But I was too excited to be nervous. If you had sent me to Washington to cover politics or London to cover foreign affairs, yes, I would have been nervous because I would have had no comfort level. Covering baseball was exactly where I wanted to be.
The Yankee beat was particularly cut-throat. I remember once there were rumors about the Yankees getting Tom Seaver, and the sports desk called me and told me they wanted a Seaver-to-the-Yankees story; they even had a doctored picture of Seaver in a Yankees uniform to run with the story. I was naive, thinking a reported story comes before the headline, not the other way around. But what I remember most about that spring was how kind McAlary was to me. He introduced me to some players and said, “He’s okay. You can trust him.” It meant the world to me, especially in an environment that didn’t exactly bring out the kindness in some people.
It was like getting thrown onto a treadmill going 10 miles an hour. You had to get up to top speed immediately covering the Yankees or you were toast. Steinbrenner ripped his team from the roof of Fort Lauderdale Stadium, called the third game of the season crucial after losing two to the Red Sox, ripped his team at an exhibition game in Columbus, fired the legendary Yogi Berra as manager (I can still see Yogi’s son, Dale, an infielder on the team, dabbing his tears with a sanitary sock in the clubhouse of the old Comiskey Park) and hired Billy Martin—and that was all before the season was three weeks old. When Martin was hired, McAlary told me, “Get ready. You’re about to spend more time drinking in bars than you ever have in your life.”
He was right, of course. With Martin as manager, a beat writer’s night only was beginning when the game ended. You had to find Martin in the bar. It was a competition issue. Martin would talk about his team and his players in brutally honest terms when he drank, and if another writer was there and you were not, well, you missed not only the information but also the standing of being a “Billy guy.” Moreover, there was the high probability that Martin just might wind up in a fight with somebody. To survive, I had to borrow a trick from Buck Showalter, who loved to learn from Martin’s baseball intellect: the only way to keep up with Martin was to occasionally dump your drink into a potted palm.
J.P.: You wrote what many consider to be the first groundbreaking PED story, your 2002 cover piece on Ken Caminiti and drugs in baseball. I’ve long wondered—how did you get Ken to talk about such a taboo subject? How did that unfold?
T.V.: I remember before the 2002 season we had an SI meeting, with writers and editors, to talk about story ideas for the upcoming season. I said, “Guys, the next big story is about steroids in baseball. I guarantee you it’s going to be written. And it better be written by us.” The issue became obvious to me in 2001—not just innuendo or rumor about a few renegade players—because clean players were coming up to me and saying, “It’s an unfair game. There are so many guys using steroids that now I am at a competitive disadvantage.” The excuse makers today don’t want to acknowledge what it was doing to the game. You either had to stick a needle loaded with illegal drugs in your butt—God knows where the drugs came from or what it would do to your testicles—or you were at an obvious competitive disadvantage when it came to your job and your earning potential.
SI encouraged me to begin reporting the story. I was making good progress, but nobody wanted to give their name. For instance, I spoke to a minor league player who defined for me the insidious nature of a game being turned over to drug cheats. He wasn’t a power hitter at all—in fact, he was a speedy outfielder. He told me he was totally against steroids—knew they were illegal and wrong. His wife was against them. But he compromised his own values because others were getting ahead of him. He juiced up and he immediately felt the difference. His bat was quicker. He got to pitches he otherwise wouldn’t get to. And if he started to wear down, if his bat started to slow, he went back on the juice.
It tells you something about how wrong steroids were that nobody then—and even to this day, so few players—would go on the record about their steroid use. Until Caminiti. A producer for CNN knew I was working on a steroids story. She had interviewed Caminiti for a totally unrelated subject and he had mentioned steroids rather casually in their conversation. She thought it was worth checking with him. I knew Caminiti from his playing days. He was a great guy and one of the most respected teammates I ever encountered. I called him up. He lived in the Houston area. I told him what I was working on and I would like to talk to him. He immediately invited me to his home.
I flew to Houston. We sat in his big garage on folding lawn chairs, surrounded by the cars he loved to customize. It was a long conversation. All afternoon. He never flinched. Ken had problems in his life with substance abuse, and it seemed like he was working his way through his problems with counseling and support groups. I imagine he was at a time in his life where honesty with himself was a priority. He told me he had nothing to hide. Not once, not even off the record, did he mention the name of any other player. His personal accountability was stark and courageous.
That night, accompanied by a friend of his, we went to dinner. It was nothing fancy. Just a diner where he could order “the usual” and they knew exactly what to bring. At one point he looked at me and said, “This is pretty big, huh?” I told him yes. He said, “I have nothing to hide.”
J.P.: When you started doing TV work for the MLB Network, I was surprised. You’ve always struck me as a traditional journalist, and working for MLB while covering MLB seems, well, pretty new school. And yet … it’s 2012. Rules seem different, etc. Curious: Why did you take the gig? Is there a conflict, even in perception? Or, in this age, have things simply changed?
T.V.: All very good questions, and questions I needed to ask myself. I have been with MLB Network since Day One: Jan. 1, 2009. The first question I needed answered was this: how much editorial control will they have over what I say? Anything other than zero would have been a problem. I can tell you there has been no editorial directives to influence what I can or should say on air. Of course, before I could even consider it, I had to make sure that SI was okay with the arrangement, and it was. Moreover, I was convinced that the product would be an elite one, just like SI—and it has delivered. MLB Network is the most successful channel launch in the history of cable television, and it’s for reasons of substance, not just distribution, that make it so.
One of the things I really enjoyed when I got to SI was the expectation of nothing short of high quality work. Newspaper writing is full of compromise—budgets, time and space. Writing for SI, the compromises are peeled away. You generally have enough time, space and resources (though as writers, they are never enough) to produce something of outstanding quality every time. I like that. I have found that MLB Network aspires to similar high standards.
Finally, I liked the new challenge it presented me. I don’t come to cameras naturally, but I wanted to get better and to see how much fun I could have with it. The gig has been great. MLB Network even gave me the opportunity to work as game analyst in the booth with greats Bob Costas and Matt Vasgersian, which has led to game analyst work on national FOX Saturday games. There was no map to follow for a beat writer to wind up in the national TV booth as an analyst, but I found out it’s something that I really enjoy.
J.P.: I have a lot of aspiring journalists reading these interviews, so I’d love to focus a bit on writing. Specifically, how do you think of your ledes? Do they pop in your head as soon as something happens? Do they hit you as you sit down to write? Do you state them aloud initially? How? And do you know as soon as they come?
T.V.: I’m glad you asked. One of the disappointments for me when I first started writing was that I had many places to go to learn more about baseball but almost none when it came to learning more about writing. I thought baseball writers loved writing and talking about it, but I found that wasn’t the case. The constant pressure of deadlines and competition can quickly dull the craftwork from the job.
I’m always on the lookout for ledes. It’s always in my head, and here’s why: every once in a while you hear a story or observe a scene that you think could be a great lede, so on the spot you have to search for every detail, flavor and scent to make the lede more alive to the reader. Imagine Johnny All-Star tells you his father used to throw bottle caps to him to hit in their basement to improve his hand-eye coordination. Great story. But now you’ve got to ask him to describe the basement, to tell you what drinks the caps came from (Yoo-Hoo? Root beer? Ginger Ale?), to tell you if he ever nailed his father in the eye with one of those caps—all the things that turn a generic story into a specific time and place for the reader. The time to think about those details is not when you’re sitting down to write, but as you’re listening and reporting. There are great reporters who are not great writers. I can’t think of any great writer that’s not a great reporter.
Ledes come from anywhere, and sometimes they do pop into your head as you sit down. Sometimes they take maddeningly long to show up. We’ve all been there. The best thing to do when that happens is to review all your notes, then write something . . . anything . . . to get started. You’re essentially daring the gods of ledes to show up with something better—and usually they do.
T.V.: Go for it. I never stopped to think about how darn competitive journalism is—and specifically, baseball writing. I never stopped to think about it when I first applied to 30 or so newspapers as a graduating senior at Penn State and received rejection letters from every one of them. Why? I wanted to write and so I knew that was what I was going to do. And if you are working at something you are passionate about, you are going to do it with enthusiasm and curiosity, which are the requirements of improvement, which will continue to propel you forward. I hate those lists that come out every spring around graduation time about “where the hot jobs are.” It’s a moving target, and it may be in a direction to which you have no interest. You can’t know where publishing will evolve and what the market will be. But you can know what’s in your heart. I tell them to pursue their passion. And I tell them that ever since man came back from a hunt and painted pictures on the cave wall about it, people are interested in a good story well told. Sure, how that story is delivered may change, but the innate need to connect to one another through stories does not change.
J.P.: You covered the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa chase for Sports Illustrated, and covered it brilliantly. I’m wondering, in hindsight, if you ever had any PED suspicions at the time? I’m also wondering, in hindsight, if you feel, well, duped? I mean, we all thought we were witnessing this magical, amazing, natural moment that would go down with the ’27 Yanks and DiMaggio’s streak as seminal moments in the game. And now, well, it’s sorta nonsense.
T.V.: Let me take you back to an interview I did with McGwire at his house before the 1998 season. We sat in his living room and I looked him square in the eye and asked him about steroids. The speculation that I heard on McGwire was that his body had been breaking down—especially foot and knee injuries—because he had overloaded his muscles and joints through steroids. Essentially, he had become too big for his own good. I told him this. Now, did I expect him to just reply, “Well, since you asked, yes, I’ve been juicing for years.”? No. But I bring it up to give you some context—that there was a steroid subtext to the Home Run Race of ’98.
(McGwire told me when I asked then about steroids that he didn’t use them but that he took “anything that’s legal.” Quick aside: while in California with McGwire I worked out with him at a local gym. Guys would come up to him and ask how he got his forearms so big. McGwire told me his forearms were 17 1/2 inches around. My goodness, I thought, this man’s forearms are bigger than my neck.)
The whole “the media looked the other way” stuff is overblown. You had to nail such a story on the record, as with Caminiti, to write it. Many stories referred to steroids in baseball, but how to tie a specific player to them without proof? You don’t.
I remember hearing some writers in the press box in St. Louis when McGwire finished with 70 saying it was the greatest thing they’d ever seen. I just don’t get personally wrapped up in what somebody else does as an individual player. I did think the back-and-forth between Sosa and McGwire—the chasing of the record and the personalities—was fascinating and that was a great story. I did think how each of them handled the attention and pressure was impressive. I spent a lot of time with them that summer, especially McGwire. I always remember him talking about how proud he was of how strong he was mentally. Looking back on it, I now think there were places in his heart where McGwire didn’t fully buy into it because he carried the secret of steroids. But he was totally committed to what he accomplished mentally—to hold up to all the attention and pressure.
McGwire is a good dude with a good heart who made a wrong decision and he knows it. I don’t feel personally duped. Same with Alex Rodriguez. I asked him about steroids in 2002 while working on the Caminiti story. It was in his hotel suite in Chicago after a game one night. He looked at me like I had two heads. Steroids? Gee, why would anybody take them? What do they do? I don’t know anything about it . . . I walked out of the suite shaking my head about his complete and theatrical lack of knowledge about the worst kept secret in the game. It would be seven years later that we all discovered, by his own admission, that he was loaded to the gills on steroids at that very moment.
J.P.: Absolute greatest moment of your journalistic career? Absolute lowest?
T.V.: Everything I’ve tried to do is bring people closer to the heart of the game and the people who play it. So it doesn’t get any better than playing a week with the Toronto Blue Jays in spring training in 2005. I wouldn’t call it as much of a journalistic triumph as much as it was more stinking fun than any journalist could ever have. The lowest might have been watching the 1989 World Series at home on television. I had covered the NLCS, and remained in San Francisco with a couple of off days before the World Series. So I did what I often did with some free time: found a gym to play pickup basketball. I broke my foot—felt and heard it break—and like a dummy I finished the game on it because we had exactly 10 players at the time and I didn’t want the game to end on my account. I went to a hospital, had the foot put in a cast and flew home, and watched as the earthquake hit.
• I used to get a kick out of how Dick Friedman (our baseball editor back in the day) used to refer to you as Tommy. Like, does a-n-y-o-n-e else call you that?: Yes, you might be surprised, though most of them are my mom and brothers and sisters.
• Five greatest baseball beat writers of your lifetime?: Impossible and unfair to be so definitive, but I will say I’m probably no different than most people in that you are most impressionable in your youth. I grew up reading and impressed by Moss Klein and Dan Castellano of the Newark Star Ledger. I later was fortunate enough to work with them, and gained a greater appreciation for how they maintained their enthusiasm and professionalism for the job after doing it for so many years.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Kerry Lightenberg, Tim Tebow, cold rain, Appetite for Destruction, Celine Dion, Hilton Honors points, Shea Stadium, Christmas music, the Newark Star-Ledger, Twitter, D.J. Dozier, Takeo Spikes, Dr. Dre.: The Newark Star Ledger was my gateway to journalism. I delivered it as a kid—getting up at 6 am to get my paper route done before school—but made sure I read the sports section before I delivered it. It also improved my arm strength. I loved throwing it from the street to the doorstep (though those with aluminum storm doors that often took the impact, maybe not so much). Shea Stadium. (Especially upper deck, doubleheaders, with my brothers and a sub from Tower’s, a deli near home.) D.J. Dozier. (PSU baseball/football). Takeo Spikes (played with Bengals and Bills when my brother was coaching there). Christmas music. Tim Tebow. Kerry Lightenberg. Dr. Dre. Twitter. Hilton Honors points. Cold rain. Celine Dion. Appetite for Destruction.
• We give you 500 major league at-bats in 2013, what’s your line?: Terrible. Maybe .020 if a few bloops fall. Maybe.
• What would be the scouting report of your baseball career at Penn State?: I used to think I was a poor man’s Henry Cotto, which is overstating it. My greatest skill was persistence. I was a walk-on who first got cut but I refused to leave. So I stuck around—until I graduated in 3 1/2 years. Fortunately, I was a better student.
• Would Mookie have beaten Buckner to the bag?: No.
• ESPN offers you $2 million annually to co-host an hour-long debate show with Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. You in?: Nothing against those two gentlemen at all, but no, thank you.
• Did Albert Belle intimidate you? Why or why not?: No. Seriously, what was he going to do? Punch me? Maybe it’s because an Indians official once told me a story (true or not) that Belle thought Italians carried luck and he would have one of the equipment managers, who was Italian, walk around the clubhouse clicking two of his bats together to bring him luck.
• Five reasons for one to make Montgomery Township, N.J. his/her next vacation destination?: Golf at Cherry Valley Country Club and Mattawang Golf Club. Hiking in the Sourland Mountains. Shopping, dining and arts in Princeton. Easy commute to Philadelphia or New York. Conte’s Pizza.